When Bharatnatyam exponent Narthaki Nataraj completes yet another enthralling performance, the audience in the prestigious 'Narada Gana Sabha' here give her a standing ovation -- not a mean achievement for a transgender ostracised and ridiculed by the society.
Winner of the state Government's 'Kalaimamani' title this year and accorded the status of 'top grade' artiste by Doordarshan, Nataraj has scripted several success stories but not before overcoming many a hurdle.
Born as a fifth 'son' in a lower middle class family at Anupadi in the southern district of Madurai, Nataraj became aware of the femininity in himself at a very young age.
Nataraj's family came in for a rude shock when the child started dressing up and conducting like a woman. The child, who was thrashed, abused and isolated by family members and neighbours, found solace in the company of a classmate, Sakthi Bhaskar, who was also undergoing a similar transformation.
An innate passion for dance in Nataraj was kindled after watching the films of danseus-actors Vyjayanthimala and Padmini in a village theatre. Ever since, it became 'her' burning desire to master the art.
"I considered dance as a medium to express my femininity. I used to imagine myself as Padmini and imitate her movements. Fearing that people would ridicule me, I used to dance at secluded places with my friend Sakthi being my only audience. I had even practised in a graveyard," she recalls.
With Nataraj's parents considering her physical condition an affront to the family's prestige, she walked out of the house at the age of 16.
"I was forced to dress and behave like a boy, which I could never come to terms with. I felt like a free bird, the day I came out of the house," Nataraj says.
Having come to the streets, life became a day-to-day struggle for Nataraj and Sakthi as they had to fight poverty, isolation and mockery of the society. But, the passion for dance never subsided.
It was then she heard about legendary Bharatnatyam teacher KP Kittappa Pillai, a direct descendant of 'Tanjore quartet brothers'-- renowned musicians and dance masters who lived in the 17th century.
When she came to know that Kittappa was the guru of her idol Vyjayanthimala and stars like Hema Malini and Yamini Krishnamurthy, Nataraj had no second thoughts and immediately packed off to Thanjavur, the cradle of Tamil art and culture.
"There I was, a humble person belonging to the third gender, knocking at the doors of a huge kingdom of art. I didn't make any attempt to hide my identity and stood before my guru only as a transgender," she reminisces.
Kittappa took her under his wings but not before testing for a year her steadfastedness and love for the art. He also rechristened her as 'Narthaki' (dance exponent).
She became a full-time residential student and learnt the original Tanjore style of Bharatnatyam -- 'Nayaki Bhava.'
She stayed with her guru for 15 years until he died in 1999 and learnt everything she could and practised vigorously. She also worked as his assistant in Tanjore Tamil University.
It was only after her guru's death, she came to Chennai to carve out a space for herself in the art domain, that was hitherto dominated by upper-class Brahmins.